When Aili Seghetti, a consumer researcher and intimacy coach, moved from the U.K. to India around 15 years ago, she found herself caught in the middle of the country’s complex and often toxic dating cycle.
From being grabbed by men on first dates to sitting through awkward conversations and dealing with cheesy pick-up lines, she quickly realised that the country’s dating circuit was mired with misogyny, miscommunication and a general lack of awareness on how to approach intimacy with someone in a consensual and respectful way.
“I would go on these dates and they were just so… bad,” Seghetti, who lives in Mumbai, told VICE over a video call. “The communication between men and women in India can get very confusing because of how fast gender roles are changing. India is culturally experiencing a shift. We have more women earning their own money, and openly seeking and having sex. There is also a transition happening from arranged to love marriages. All these factors have led to [a dating culture where] men and women don’t know how to behave with each other, especially when you move beyond the English-speaking metros.”
Having previously conducted consumer research for companies like Bumble, Tinder and Facebook, and armed with training as a sex and intimacy coach, Seghetti was able to narrow down on how cultural shifts in the country were impacting dating trends. Then, a thought occurred to her: What if she could help people master the art of dating by actually going on fake dates with them?
That’s how Seghetti came up with Intimacy Curator, a dating, relationship and intimacy coaching service. Through her “dating surrogacy” services, she could use her insights and experiences to guide people on how to date without being a dick. She leads a team of four other dating surrogates trained to help others date better.
“A dating surrogate is someone who helps you date better through experiential learning, because dating is something you need to experience, and not just read about or talk about,” she explained. “As a dating surrogate, we are trained to experientially teach you things, which we do by going on dates and giving live feedback on what you’ve said, your body language and eye contact, as well as help you with grooming, styling, and topics of conversations.”
According to Seghetti, a dating surrogate differs from a dating coach because instead of giving a client instructions or advice, they curate specialised experiences based on what the person wants from a relationship. They are also different from professional boyfriends or girlfriends in that they have a background in psychology or counselling, and offer a tangible takeaway from the experience. “In this setup we teach people how to connect with themselves if they’re shy, awkward, not used to interacting with the opposite gender or are just discovering their sexual preference,” she said. Apart from heterosexual men, Seghetti also works with queer clients who are in the process of coming out or want to explore their sexuality.
With her clients, Seghetti’s sessions typically start with counselling to understand the person, their value system, fears and desires, and whether they’re looking for something casual or on a journey to find a long-term partner. She usually conducts a personality test that helps her team understand what kind of person the client is. She also offers to help her clients design profiles on dating apps and gives them tips on how to style and groom themselves. She then designs a date according to the client’s interests and preferences.
“If someone is into reading, we can surrogate an experience at a bookstore or a coffee shop,” she explained. “If someone wants to travel with their date, we take them to a nearby hill station like Lonavala for a weekend. This also helps them understand what happens when you go on an outstation date with someone.”
Depending on what the client is looking for, the dating surrogacy experience can range from a week to three months. In most cases, she added, clients are also given a crash course in understanding consent and intimacy. “If they are ready or have decided they want to hook up with their date, we take them through how to ask for consent, the different types of touch, and breathing exercises to create an erotic experience,” she added. “We don’t have sex with the client and that is illegal in India. There is no kissing or touching of genitals, but we do cuddle with them or hold hands, and basically take them through everything that builds up to the erotic moment without [getting to] the actual moment.”
To ensure the surrogate’s safety, Seghetti works with a lawyer who can step in if legalities are called into question, as well as a private security guard who accompanies her and her team members on outstation dates. They screen their clients before taking them on, too. She charges her clients Rs 3,000 ($39) for the pre-date counselling session, after which a two-hour date costs Rs 5,000 ($65).
Seghetti recollected an experience with a 32-year old man who travelled from Delhi to Mumbai to try out the surrogacy experience. “He was a virgin who had never gone on a date or even spoken to women before. We gave him a haircut, went shopping and bought him clothes, and went on six surrogate dates to prepare him for how to approach women. He came from a culture where people went on dates in a car or in farmhouses, so I designed dates where we went on long drives to romantic spots in Mumbai like Marine Drive, had conversations, and held hands. The final date was in a hotel room, where I showed him how to build erotic tension, maintain eye contact, how close he should stand to his date, the importance of consent, condoms, and how to communicate any fears or tension he felt since it was his first time.”
Consent is a sensitive aspect of the learning experience, especially in a country with alarmingly high levels of sex crimes and where patriarchy skews the power dynamics between genders. “With this client, I stressed that he had to spend some time talking to the person about what they were into in bed, express what he wanted and ask for consent in a sexy way, like saying I really want to kiss you and then holding eye contact to see how the other person reacts. “When he went back [to Delhi], he was able to approach women and finally have sex.”
In another case, Seghetti was able to surrogate a dating experience for a woman who wanted to explore sexual intimacy with other women for the first time. “I had a client who was married for 10 years and then got divorced. She was on a journey to explore her sexuality and approached us to understand how to get it going with a woman. We went for a play and a walk on Juhu beach. Here, we tested how comfortable she was holding hands in public if that is something her date wanted to do. We ended it at her place, where we went through her emotions and intentions.” Seghetti also compiled links to videos to help this client learn about how to have sex with a woman, and educated her about the sex toys available out there.
As a dating surrogate, Seghetti’s aim is to help her clients fulfil their desires and fantasies by providing a simulation that makes it easier for them to navigate the real thing. However, she added, given the niche nature of her job, she often gets asked stereotypical questions. “Many people think we ‘offer girls’ or just have sex with our clients, [or that] they just want to pay for the experience rather than learning how to create the experience for themselves.”
Her experience has led her to observe what she found to be a massive chasm between men’s and women’s desires.
“Many of my male clients are worried about not being able to perform in bed or have a lasting erection, while many female clients want to find love and long-term companionship. Some people also come to me to understand how to approach people for threesomes or how to discuss their kinks with a date.”
Aili's advice for first-time daters is to always be curious about the person they are going on a date with. Photo courtesy of Aili Seghetti
Inevitably, in some cases, Seghetti’s clients have also caught feelings for their dummy date. However, instead of looking at this as a drawback of her profession, she views it as another opportunity to educate the client.
“We do have clients who develop romantic feelings for us, but this then becomes a way to teach them about dealing with rejection,” she explained. “If you’re dating, you will face rejection at some point, especially if you’re shy or awkward, so this becomes the perfect way for them to practise how to deal with rejection.”
And what about the instances in which she or someone from her team catches feelings for their clients?
“We don’t mix business with pleasure,” she stressed. “In our profession, we are always dealing with feelings and emotions, and that has taught us how to regulate them. It’s not wrong to have feelings for someone, but that doesn’t mean you want to build a life with them. ”